How does one go from being a yogurt seller and hairdresser with a take-home of between USD 30.00 to USD 40.00 to owning and running a USD 173 Mn company touted as one of the leading Internet Service Providers in East Africa? Well, you might need to ask Njeri Rionge; who has been described in several circles as one of Africa’s most successful serial entrepreneurs.
As she likes to reiterate time and again, being successful in business is not entirely about financial rewards. It begins with creating real value. The financial rewards just happen to always accompany value addition.
Before she started out as a hairdresser back in the 1980s in a modest salon stashed away somewhere in Nairobi, she was a vendor of fresh yogurt – her first business, something she started doing at 19.
With the help a friend of hers who owned a car, the pair would leave for Limuru at first light to get the product. Together, they would drive to two high schools and sell the treats during break time. And the same routine would repeat itself the next day.
It was the first of many businesses she ventured into, and even now, she still appears to have a way of extending her tentacles and grabbing at several stuff simultaneously without spreading herself thin.
With the hairdressing venture, it wasn’t all about the money for her. More importantly, she was doing something she loved, and she was pretty good at it too. This won her wealthy clients from far and wide as her reputation burgeoned and the business blossomed.
But Njeri didn’t rest on her oars. Her skill and passion for the craft were never in doubt but she was also quite aware that skill and passion could only get one so far. Soon, she was on the lookout for ways to create even more value, lest she became just another skilled hairdresser who was at the top of her game until some rookie with raw talent arrived and knocked her off her perch.
In an effort to provide additional services to her particularly well-to-do clientele, she found an opportunity that involved taking discounted courier trips to London, and she didn’t need a second invitation. On these trips, she would purchase luxury brand clothes and bring them back to sell to her clients in Kenya at a profit.
When conversations centered around computers and the internet started growing from tentative whispers to loud banters in the 1990s, Njeri, yet again, saw a chance. At that time, computers and the internet were clawing their way into global consciousness but they were seen as something of a prerogative for the business elite. They were viewed as just another luxury item that only the affluent would ever be able to afford.
But was it? Well, for starters, Njeri didn’t think so, and then came her next big break. The Kenyan entrepreneur recognised a need to make information more accessible to the masses via the internet. This neglected market segment did hold huge potential rewards as it was more or less untapped at the time. And she knew this was her chance to finally get a crack at first-mover advantage.
At the turn of the millennium, she co-founded Wananchi Online; an affordable Internet Service Provider (ISP) for anyone looking for a cheap and convenient way of accessing the internet. Getting its name from the Swahili word for “citizen,” it could be said Wananchi was aptly named given that it is largely considered the first ISP in East Africa that has the needs of the mass market as its primary focus.
Setting up Wananchi was no cakewalk, though. At a time when the idea of “startups” was an alien concept in the Kenyan space, she always had her work cut out for her. Those early phases were full of ups and downs; a rollercoaster.
Unlike today when internet technology startups are commonplace, businesses of that nature had to contend with administrative and bureaucratic hurdles in the early 2000s. During that time, it was something of a widely-held belief that the internet was the privilege of the elite and the elite alone, and as such, it was unheard of for a relatively smaller, younger company to be looking to make it about the masses.
During those times, Njeri went to war with the government, industry regulators, and the existing competition (at least, in figurative terms), and somehow managed to come away with victory from the jaws of defeat.
When Njeri sat down with the BBC for an interview several years ago, she spoke about her interactions with Kenyan politicians: “It goes without saying that the majority of decision-makers are not aware of the benefits of the internet and most of them are actually afraid of touching and using a computer.”
But thankfully, all that seems to be a thing of the past now as the potentials of the IT sector has since been unlocked and these days, government policies appear to be geared toward helping the sector experience yet more growth.
But those administrative/regulatory squabbles are hardly the only difficulties Njeri had to contend with in trying to grow her business. When she set up Wananchi, the telecoms sector in Kenya was light years behind where it is today, especially as it was managed by the then-government-managed Telkom Kenya.
As the story goes, there was this one time when Njeri and her business partner had to spend several hours at the Telkom office in Nairobi filling out 600 pages of forms and making 600 photocopies of their credentials just to be able to purchase 200 phone lines. How ridiculous!
It was a tedious, topsy-turvy journey but she persevered and managed to remain in the race, perhaps because of her strong belief in the amount of value that the internet could create for the average household.
“We know that our industry is probably one of the few mediums that can actually bridge the gap between the poor and the rich in our economy”, she said, and in spite of the many setbacks and challenges, she has since transformed Wananchi Online into Wananchi Group.
To this day, the Group is still considered one of the leading providers of cable television, broadband internet, and internet-based phone services in East Africa. These days, it is probably issues like funds to continually grow the business and shortage of skilled staff that she has to deal with.
Even though it might seem she was particularly drawn on the Wananchi project, Njeri still maintains her disposition towards serial entrepreneurship. In fact, even as she was embroiled in some kind of tug-of-war to get the ISP business to where it is today, she still found time to launch other ideas of hers.
Amongst her other ventures are Ignite Consulting (a business consultancy firm), Ignite Lifestyle (a healthcare consultancy firm), Insite (one of Kenya’s most successful digital marketing companies), and Business Lounge (which she likes to describe as her ‘labour of love’ – a leading startup incubator in Kenya).
The Kenyan entrepreneur is quite passionate about startups even though currently, she does not envision herself sticking to any one project for too long, at least, not in the way she’s managed to do with Wananchi.
“I build organisations and then hand them over to someone else – that is my type of entrepreneurship,” she told the BBC.
With a view to putting in place the enabling environment for other entrepreneurs to thrive, Njeri continues to channel resources into Business Lounge, which is essentially an environment that welcomes entrepreneurs with ideas with a view to brainstorming, networking, and developing those ideas into sustainable businesses.
As part of those efforts, Njeri currently also promotes her own brand, Njeri Rionge, through which she motivates and coaches aspiring and budding entrepreneurs – allowing the younger generation to fetch from her stream of knowledge and wealth of experience.
Interestingly, while Njeri Rionge has managed to earn several high-level university degrees in the course of her storied career, she prefers to attribute some of her success to the vocational certificate courses she underwent, citing those as the source of the resourcefulness that has seen her take on several projects, at times simultaneously.
She also gives some of the credit to her travels to many parts of the globe which she says has helped to open up her mind to possibilities.
For now, though, she’s big on inspiring other entrepreneurs and encouraging them to be resilient. As seen from the eyes of the Kenyan entrepreneur, resilience, or having a strong backbone that can handle challenges, is vital to entrepreneurship.
Featured Image Courtesy: africanexponent.com